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'I'm heartbroken': Award-winning trapper from Fort Smith dies

A quiet German immigrant who made Fort Smith home for 62 years is being remembered as a loving father, award-winning trapper and accomplished craftsman who meticulously built log cabins, freighter canoes and toboggans.

Karl Hoffman is remembered as a loving father and accomplished craftsman

Karl Hoffman at home in Fort Smith in 2014, the year he was named senior trapper for the South Slave by Environment and Natural Resources. (Meagan Wohlberg/Northern Journal)

A quiet German immigrant who made Fort Smith home for 62 years is being remembered as a loving father, award-winning trapper and accomplished craftsman who meticulously built log cabins, freighter canoes and toboggans.

Karl Hoffman died on January 19 at the age of 83, from natural causes. He is survived by his wife Vina Champagne, three of their six children and a large extended family.

Champagne said it was love at first sight when she met Hoffman at her aunt's house a half century ago.

A young Karl Hoffman, Vina Champagne and their late son, Riel, at one of several outpost cabins he built along his trapline. (Submitted by Betty Gunn)

"This young man introduced himself to me and I thought, 'Oh my.' I was overwhelmed by his beauty," she said. "We've been together for 55 years and all of a sudden he's not around. I'm heartbroken."

Fitting in 

Hoffman became fast friends with Pi Kennedy, now 92, another legendary trapper and bushman. The two had their own cabins and traplines near Lady Grey Lake, about 130 kilometres from Fort Smith. When Hoffman got his private pilot's licence and small plane at the age of 52, Kennedy was beside him in the co-pilot's seat.

"Some people didn't think he'd last, but he did," Kennedy said with a chuckle.

Hoffman skinning a lynx at his cabin on Lady Grey Lake. (Submitted by Terrence Campbell)

Hoffman worked as carpenter and cabinet maker. The work took him to remote communities in the high Arctic and Old Crow, Yukon, which is where he got the idea to build, weld and sew his famous flat wooden sleighs, like the ones still used by snowmobilers and dog mushers.

An accepted outsider

When Hoffman arrived in Fort Smith in 1957, non-Indigenous settlers were often viewed with suspicion, even if partnered with a local. Richard Mercredi said Hoffman fit right in.

"Pretty hard to get a trapline back then because all the native people were still trapping. But because he got along well with everybody, he got that trapline," Mercredi said.

Mercredi spoke to Hoffman about a week before he died. He knew his friend wasn't feeling well, but didn't realize it would be the last time they would speak.

The veteran trapper and bushman with his lynx, marten, fox and muskrat furs. (Submitted by Terrence Campbell)

"It's hard when it's sudden and you don't really have a chance to say goodbye," Mercredi said.

Longtime resident and former MLA Michael Miltenberger shared the sentiment.

"Everytime you lose a friend like Karl, you think about it. The circle of life is completed and another good guy is gone," Miltenberger said.

Not only are friends and family paying tribute to Hoffman, but so are people like former Northern Journal reporter Meaghan Wolhberg, who interviewed Hoffman in 2014 after he was named senior trapper in the South Slave by the territorial government.

Karl Hoffman at Lady Grey Lake with his sons, the late Karl Jr. (left) and William. (Submitted by Betty Gunn)

"I remember him telling me that he viewed the bush as his church," Wohlberg said in an email to CBC. "He spent most of his years out on the land and continued to be a prolific trapper well into his older years, flying out to his cabin to trap even as an elder. My sincere condolences go out to his family and the whole community, who lost a truly dedicated bush man — one of the last of his kind."

A memorial service is scheduled for July 2019 in Fort Smith.

Hoffman customized wooden toboggans from red oak and sometimes plastic. (Submitted by Terrence Campbell)

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